Some of my absolute favorite movies are centered around the holiday season. You know, the ones that paint a picturesque image of what the holidays should look like — festive decorations, friends gathering around cozy fires, finding love under the mistletoe, bonding with loved ones, and giving gifts that really mean something. Sure, there may be a few bumps in the road (like going home with your live-in girlfriend only to find out that she hasn't come out to her toxic family), but in the end it turns out to be the Best Holiday Ever, complete with a happy ending. Except, in real life, that's not usually how my holidays turn out — and I'm sure yours don't, either.
As the end of the year draws close, the pressure to have a perfect holiday season tends to mount. "Everything around you, societally, is pushing you to be happy and to focus on happiness [around the holidays]," says Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, and founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project. The movies, the ads, the perfectly curated Instagram pictures of decorations, wrapped presents, and matching family jammies all fuel this idea of what we think the holidays should look like. When contrasted with our real-life experiences, we usually end up feeling disappointed, miserable, and frustrated long before we unwrap our first present.
This year, we may be feeling an even bigger desire for a flawlessly festive Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. We’ve been through a tough 365 days that have included a global pandemic, immense personal loss, a collective focus on the heartbreaking social and racial inequities in our country, and a truly anxiety-provoking election. The holidays may feel like our one chance to end this year right, a beacon of light that will save us from the hardships of 2020. But this exact build-up can actually be detrimental to our mental health, setting us up for a serious letdown post-holiday season (or a major meltdown during it).
Avoiding the holiday happiness trap requires being intentional about managing our expectations, says Dr. Breland-Noble. Here, she lays out a game plan to end this season feeling refreshed, rather than drained.
Feel every feeling
The problem with this time of year is that we often end up trying to force ourselves to feel happy, dammit. Dr. Breland-Noble recommends this simple mental flip: Try to feel, and acknowledge, every feeling that passes over you throughout the day. "A range of emotions is your natural state of being," she says. "Trying to focus on just one emotion is really not how we're built. We're not built to be happy all the time."
Instead, tune into those highs and lows. Did your mother just say something backhanded about the present you sent? Name your reaction (disappointment, anger), and let yourself feel it thoroughly. Were you stuck in traffic during your Christmas tree pick-up? Acknowledge the frustration. Though we tend to think that suppressing negative emotions will maximize our joy, pushing down all those normal feelings is a great way to snuff out any sense of natural happiness. "If you're just focusing on the stuff that makes you happy, you're ignoring a lot of the things that detract from your happiness," Dr. Breland-Noble explains. "When you ignore them, they don't go away." Instead, they just pile up until — boom — you're crying because you burned your fifth batch of holiday cookies (but really because your mom is such a jerk sometimes!). Admitting you feel low lets you process the emotion so it can truly pass.
Prioritize doing the things you like — and quitting the things you don't. Hate cooking on the holidays? Order in your favorite meal. Hate watching The Polar Express every year just to make your sister happy? Spend those couple of hours going for a hike instead. Seriously, now is the time to do things because you want to do them — not because you feel like you have to. "Pick something to do that brings you joy," Dr. Breland-Noble says. Even if you decide to do some things in the name of keeping the peace, bookend those activities with ones that truly nourish your soul. After the year you've (probably) had, you deserve to spend time filling your cup this season.
Take a nap
Or sleep in, take a bath, practice yoga nidra, put together a puzzle, or do something you find restful. Better yet, do two things. Every day until Jan. 1. Dr. Breland-Noble says that chilling out is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves during the holiday season. "Slow down and take the opportunity to rest," she says. "You have to have good rest to even have a fighting chance at pursuing and achieving happiness."
Dr. Breland-Noble points out that if you're not well-rested, you can't think clearly — and if you can't think clearly, you can't practice self-awareness or actively enjoy the things that make you happy. So eat the things that make you feel good, get enough sleep, go for a walk, and be wary around toxic people and toxic places.
Don a spiritual hazmat suit
Okay, that last point deserves to be emphasized. Toxic people — meaning, anyone who makes you feel worse after you talk to them — are draining, and Dr. Breland-Noble says it's best to avoid them as the holidays approach. But if you can't, given that it's a time of year when you tend to see old connections (like your high school ex-friend who is now an anti-vaxxer or your aunt who is incapable of not berating you for being single), protect yourself. As Dr. Breland-Noble puts it, "You can't control those other people, but you can control you."
First off, know your triggers, and prepare yourself for them. Have conversation topics ready to steer any nasty comments in a direction you can control. For example, Aunt Karen might say, "Ah, single again this year, are you?" and you can prepare yourself to guide the conversation away from the off-limits topic by saying, "Funny, Aunt Karen. What have you been watching on Netflix?" You may just save yourself from a sparring match.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with toxic people. It can also be useful to remind yourself that you only have to spend a short amount of time in their company — even virtually — and to have a general "protect me" plan in place. Don't feel like you have to be a hero: Walk away, if that's what it takes to safeguard your internal wellbeing, and don't knock yourself for losing your cool. (Side note: These tips on how to deal with political conversations around the holiday dinner table apply here, too.)
Shoot for "normal"
Ultimately, the holidays are just a random, arbitrary couple of weeks. They might trend a little down one year, or a little up another, but the days always pass just as quickly as any other. And if they're a little disappointing, that's okay. "Acknowledge that you did the best you could under the circumstances," Dr. Breland-Noble says. All we can do is keep adjusting our expectations, try to savor the good stuff, and know the bad stuff will soon be in the closing credits.